One of the saddest experiences I have as a hospital chaplain is ministering to patients who die alone. Thankfully, that is unusual. In the great majority of cases, the dying person is surrounded by family. Friends are often there too, but mostly family: the people who have been with that person all through life and who are present to the end. In fact, I am writing this having just returned from a hospital where a recently deceased man lay surrounded by the love of his intensely grieving wife and daughters. As they wept, they held onto his hands and caressed his face and covered his dead body with kisses. There was a lot of sadness in that room: intense sadness bitterly felt. But it would have been sadder – there would have been a sadder kind of sadness – if his family were not there, if there were no one to grieve this man’s death and surround him with so much love.
I have also had the experience of being a patient. In that time of great crisis in my life, I was the recipient of extraordinary love on the part of my family. There were friends too for whose presence, kindness, and support I will always be grateful. But it was family most of all: my parents for whom my care became the all-important concern, my sister who scarcely left my side, my cousins who make their home mine when I needed to undergo treatment far from my own home.
Family is always important. It is especially important when someone is sick. It is important to the sick person who relies on the love, support, and assistance of family. It is important to the family members whose love and concern for the sick person is revealed and intensified through that person’s illness. Family has this importance because the relationships that are established within a family tend to be the strongest and most enduring. At any given time in a person’s life, she may have numerous friends, acquaintances and colleagues with whom she spends more time and with whom she may even have stronger emotional connections than she does with members of her family. But the bonds with family tend to be deeper and last longer. Family ties are more likely to endure despite conflict, disagreement, or misunderstanding. The love of family is more likely to continue across years and decades. When times of crisis come, especially the time of final crisis, it is the family that tends to be there.
The care that family members provide is extremely important to people who are sick and dying. Therefore, the care that is given by families is an extremely important part of what can rightly be called “health care.” Therefore, a crisis for the family is likewise a crisis for health care. And, according to Pope Francis, a crisis for the family is precisely what it taking place in our society.
What the pope calls, “the culture of the temporary” has the effect of replacing enduring family relationships with more fleeting bonds. The family unit is more and more likely to be fractured by divorce or avoided altogether as fewer and fewer young people chose to marry and have children. As Pope Francis says, this shift in cultural mores has the most devastating consequences for “the poorest and most vulnerable.” I think we can safely include the sick and the dying in the category of “most vulnerable.”
The sick and the dying, like others who are “most vulnerable,” are especially dependent on the care of family members. The more temporary relationships they have established in their lives are less likely to endure in time of crisis or last until the end. Absent the loving and supporting presence of family, doctors and other health care professionals may be able to provide sick and dying persons with the same procedures, treatments, and therapies. But they will not be able to replace the human care and personal attention that are a vital part of what health care ought to be. The enduring bonds of love that constitute a family are needed by everyone, but they are especially necessary for the sick and the dying.
It would be a terrible sadness indeed – to use Pope Francis’ word, it would be “devastating” – if we were to allow our “culture of the temporary” to condemn more of our sick brothers and sisters to the unhappy fate of dying alone.